Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri is a historical mystery set in early 20th century British East Africa about a missionary's daughter who yearns for adventure, but struggles to escape her parents' strict rules (available June 24, 2014).
I’ve been in many distant locales with my reading these days, but this book presents the most exotic setting—the Protectorate of British East Africa. It’s 1911, and Vera McIntosh is chafing under the control of her Scottish missionary parents. Though her mother longs for Vera to be a proper English lady, the young woman is more at home with the Kikuyu her father strives to bring into Christianity.
The thoughts of this British miss, however, are often occupied with Assistant District Superintendent Justin Tolliver. Seeking to find his way in the world, Justin came to British East Africa for a brief visit and ended up falling in love with the lush country and finding his heart no longer longing for England. The added benefit of cheap living and plenty of opportunities for work added to lure of the place.
As the daughter of a missionary and the second son of nobility, both Vera and Justin feel out of place among the people they know. Annamaria Alfieri does a masterful job of conveying this need for belonging in her two main characters. Likewise Kwai Libazo, Justin’s translator, has the mixed blood of the Kikuyu and the Maasai, which makes him an outcast in the place that should be his home.
Alfieri weaves a wonderful tale of complicated relationships, family secrets, and murder. I was caught up in the story immediately. We learn immediately that Vera is not your typical young maiden. She’s sneaking off to join the safari her brother will be going to with the neighboring Newland family. She can’t understand why her parents would let her fourteen-year-old brother go on the hunting and not allow her to go. Having been raised in the wild, Vera can handle a rifle as well as a man and seldom goes off without carrying her gun with her.
Justin enters the picture after the murder of Vera’s uncle, Josiah Pennyman. He was found face down I the hospital with a native spear in his back. For Justin’s boss, it’s an open-and-shut case. Native spear indicates native murderer, but Justin, with a strong sense of right and wrong, is more interested in finding a murderer, not a scapegoat.
Alfieri weaves her love story amid clashing of the classes as seen in this quote from Vera:
Vera put a hand on his arm. “Englishmen,” she said, “often lump all the natives together as if they must all have the same attitudes and traits. They do not. One tribe is as different from another as the French are from the English or the English from the Italians. Each tribe’s artisans have their own signature way of making things like baskets or wood carvings, or songs and dances for that matter.”
And again with this scene from her uncle’s funeral:
In the chapel, the Kikuyu Christians, whom Vera knew to be saddened and terribly frightened, had yielded their customary places to the European settlers who crowded in on this singular occasion. The natives, wrapped in their cloths of red or orange-brown, stood at the sides and the back of the chapel, a phalanx of color framing the black-clad white people. Vera bowed her head, ashamed of her own amusing thought that if the natives had dressed in white, her uncle’s funeral might have been attended by whites in black and blacks in white.
The more Justin digs for the truth, the more lies and half-truths he uncovers. Between the insistences of his superior officer to arrest a native and the effort to find who among the British might have wanted the doctor dead, Justin can’t find the proof he needs to attribute the murder whoever did it. Vera, eager to be with Justin and to help him as well, discovers her own obstacles to the truth. And the vigilant, but ever-silent Kwai Libazo quietly does his own probing. But in the midst of all this are the lovely ribbons of relationship.
Clement McIntosh was a big-boned and florid man with a lumbering walk, and as unlike Vera as Tolliver’s father was unlike him. The missionary took Tolliver’s shoulders in his hands and squeezed them in greeting. It was a purely fatherly gesture of the kind Tolliver had never received from his own papa. “My dear chap, what are we to make of this dreadful business?”
Tolliver put on his helmet and indicated the lawn that sloped toward the coffee fields. “Let’s walk out for a moment,” he said. “There are some things I wanted to ask you.”
The missionary picked up a pale straw hat with a black band from a table next to the door, put it on, and followed Tolliver. Vera gave them a look of curiosity and disappointment that Tolliver enjoyed.
When they were across the lawn and close enough to the fields to hear the natives chanting as they worked, Tolliver stopped in the shade of a thorn tree. “I wanted to ask you some questions about your brother-in-law’s private life,” he said. I thought it would not be proper to speak of it in the presence of Miss McIntosh.”
“Quite right,” her father said, as if he understood already what the subject of this conversation would be.
“On orders from D.C. Cranford, I have sent Gichinga Mbura to the jail in the Nairobi police station, but I am not convinced that he murdered Dr. Pennyman.”
“Nor am I, if the truth be known.”
“The truth is what I am after. I feel very strongly that if we do injustice to the natives, we will never succeed at what we have come here to accomplish.”
McIntosh looked into Tolliver’s face not without surprise. “You are more sensible than many a policeman, and I could not agree with you more, my lad. Ours is not an extremely popular point of view with the settlers or the crown’s administrators, however. Many would give lip service to the notion but find ways to ignore it when it suits their purposes.”
There it all is, a great recipe for a spellbinding murder mystery: an exotic locale, two young people as intent on love as they are on finding the truth, and an array of characters from all walks of life. You’ll get to the end of it wishing you were back at the beginning!
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Leigh Neely is a former journalist and editor who writes fiction with her writing partner, Jan Powell. The first book of “The Connelly Witches” miniseries for Harlequin E is out June 2. Witch’s Awakening by Neely Powell will be followed by Witch’s Haunting in the fall, and you can see True Nature at all book sites online. Leigh also writes for the popular blog, WomenofMystery.net.